Clinton Convenes the Forest Summit

President Bill Clinton’s administration held the Portland Timber Summit in an effort to find new directions for the management of federally owned forestlands in the Pacific Northwest.

Summary of Event

The Portland Timber Summit was designed to bring together disputing parties in the conflict between loggers and supporters of the northern spotted owl to present their perspectives and to identify mutually acceptable new directions in American forest management. In 1972, the U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. adopted the northern spotted owl as a symbol of vulnerability of old-growth forests. In June, 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. declared the northern spotted owl Northern spotted owls
Spotted owls to be an endangered species. Endangered species;northern spotted owl
Birds, protection In May, 1991, U.S. District Judge William Dwyer Dwyer, William ruled that President George H. W. Bush’s Bush, George H. W.
[p]Bush, George H. W.;environmental policy administration was deliberately violating the Endangered Species Act Endangered Species Act (1973) by failing to develop an adequate plan to protect the owl from extinction. The judge placed an injunction against logging on approximately three million acres of federally owned old-growth forestland in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington until an acceptable plan was developed. This ruling effectively meant that the forests were being managed by the federal courts rather than by the U.S. Forest Service. Portland Timber Summit (1993)
Timber industry
Forest management
Old-growth forests[Old growth forests]
[kw]Clinton Convenes the Forest Summit (Apr. 3, 1993)
[kw]Forest Summit, Clinton Convenes the (Apr. 3, 1993)
[kw]Summit, Clinton Convenes the Forest (Apr. 3, 1993)
Portland Timber Summit (1993)
Timber industry
Forest management
Old-growth forests[Old growth forests]
[g]North America;Apr. 3, 1993: Clinton Convenes the Forest Summit[08570]
[g]United States;Apr. 3, 1993: Clinton Convenes the Forest Summit[08570]
[c]Environmental issues;Apr. 3, 1993: Clinton Convenes the Forest Summit[08570]
[c]Government and politics;Apr. 3, 1993: Clinton Convenes the Forest Summit[08570]
[c]Natural resources;Apr. 3, 1993: Clinton Convenes the Forest Summit[08570]
Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;environmental policy
Gore, Al

Fulfilling a campaign promise to put the full power of the presidency into solving this dispute, President Bill Clinton held the daylong Portland Timber Summit with Vice President Al Gore. Participants included the secretaries of the interior, agriculture, labor, and commerce; the administration of the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the deputy budget director; and the president’s science and technology adviser. The president hoped that the casual town-meeting approach of the conference would be effective in resolving the dispute. Clinton believed that people in the Northwest wanted a truce in the timber wars and that they were disconcerted by the federal government’s disjointed policy in regard to the dispute and its resolution. He framed the government’s mission as “a heavy, almost moral, imperative.” He saw the government’s role as one based on the vision of the economic and ecological future of the residents of the Northwest. Clinton recognized the difficulties of resolving the dispute in a way that was fair to the people and their livelihoods as well as fair to the environment.

Prior to the Portland Timber Summit, environmental, timber, industry, and logger groups made a number of efforts to “sell” their perspectives on the logging situation to administration officials. On the day before the conference, representatives of these groups took officials on helicopter, airplane, and four-wheel-drive vehicle tours of the forests. Employees of all the timber mills in Oregon were given the day off and were bused to Portland to demonstrate at the conference hall, carrying signs proclaiming the need to save jobs and protect families. Fifty thousand people attended a free outdoor concert supporting the preservation of old-growth forests on the night preceding the summit. National environmental groups invited federal officials to a “forest feast” dinner at which they could dine on Northwest venison, salmon, fiddlehead ferns, mushrooms, and hazelnut biscotti. Local radio stations broadcast numerous paid announcements concerning the issues at stake.

The conference was expressly designed as a forum for participants to present their perspectives on the conflict in their own words. The loggers tended to focus on the negative effects of the logging ban on individuals, families, and logging communities. In these presentations, loggers were often depicted as environmentalists with a vested interest in a healthy forest ecology and as modern-day Paul Bunyans unable to pass on their culture to the next generation. Logging company officials often focused on the economic difficulties they faced in competitive international markets and the country’s need for housing lumber and other wood products. Small logging companies that had successfully adapted to changes in timber supplies and markets and innovations in technology and forest management were also represented.

Native Americans described the traditional and continuing significance of the forest in their lives. Environmentalists acknowledged the economic plight of the logging communities but argued that these communities’ economic problems were not a result of the restriction of cutting on federal lands; rather, the problems were a consequence of general economic conditions, such as the low number of housing starts in the United States and a general decline in the logging industry. Environmentalists claimed that the loggers’ desire for federal old-growth timber was a result of mismanagement of old growth on private lands. Environmentalists also asserted that logging-related jobs in the United States could be saved through the reduction of log exports to foreign countries.


Despite the differences in perspectives reflected in the presentations at the Portland Timber Summit, at the end of the day many participants expressed a new optimism about finding solutions to the conflict. A common theme in these reactions was relief that the federal government and the opposing sides had met to share their views and to begin thinking of mutually acceptable solutions. The optimism, however, was short-lived.

Following the summit, the task of developing a management plan was turned over to thirty-seven physical scientists, economists, and sociologists working in three teams meeting in Portland, Oregon. The teams developed ten options, ranging from option 1, the “save it all” option, which allowed 190 million board feet to be cut and would have saved all the federally owned old-growth forests, to option 10, which permitted the cutting of 1.84 billion board feet. (One board foot of wood measures one foot square by one inch thick. An average American home requires about ten thousand board feet of lumber.)

In June, 1994, a committee of senior federal officials began considering the options and prepared decision memoranda for the president. Clinton selected option 9, which set annual harvests at 1.2 billion board feet. This level of harvest was about one-fourth of that in the 1980’s but more than twice the level of harvest since the northern spotted owl was declared an endangered species. This option was known as the “efficiency option” because it focused on watersheds as the basic building blocks of the ecosystem. It therefore included actions likely to protect dwindling salmon stocks. Salmon are considered to be the next endangered species if old-growth forests are lost. Managing watershed ecosystems was believed to be more efficient than waiting to deal with salmon as a separate issue.

The management plan also called for the provision of $270 million for 1994 and $1.2 billion over five years to offset economic losses from logging. The plan eliminated 6,000 jobs in 1994 but created more than 8,000, retaining an additional 5,400 jobs. The option also established ten adaptive management areas in which local community and government groups would work together to allow logging and protect wildlife. Salvage logging, the cutting of fire- and insect-damaged trees, and thinning would be permitted in some sections of old-growth forest if an interagency team determined that these practices would not be detrimental to the northern spotted owl’s habitat.

Clinton introduced his timber management plan for federal lands in the Pacific Northwest with the prophetic words, “Not everyone is going to like this plan. . . . Maybe no one will.” Although many observers judged the plan to be a fair solution, none of the parties directly involved publicly expressed satisfaction with it. Loggers did not believe they could trust the promise of economic aid, especially at a time when the federal government was attempting to balance the budget through spending cuts. They further concluded that the plan was unfair because it contained few provisions for meeting their main concern of preserving logging jobs and the logging-based economies of their small towns. Retraining funds were offered for the purpose of equipping loggers with the skills to be employed in other jobs. Timber industry leaders believed that the plan was based on faulty assumptions about forest productivity and that it unduly restricted logging.

Environmentalists believed that the plan was unfair because it provided for more cutting than was previously permitted under the court injunction and it allowed loopholes that the timber industry would use to conduct even more logging. They believed that the provision to allow salvage logging would be used to cut green trees, as definitions of salvage logging had been stretched in the past. Whistle-blowers within the U.S. Forest Service had leaked a memorandum that explicitly directed employees to allow green cutting to happen. Workers in the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture had also found documents indicating that Forest Service officials may have in the past made questionable agreements with logging company officials prior to timber sales. Environmentalists also believed that expected large cuts in the number of Forest Service staff would make policing of the plan difficult.

Representatives of all sides in the dispute stated that they were considering bringing lawsuits against the plan. One basis for such a lawsuit was the lack of public participation in and review of the plan’s development. Although the Portland Timber Summit was a putative effort to bring the sides together and to discover mutually agreeable solutions, the alternative management options were developed by experts working in seclusion after the summit had concluded. The summit gave participants voice by allowing them to articulate their ideas, but the participants did not have the power to determine the specifics of the selected management plan.

On June 6, 1994, Judge Dwyer ruled that the option 9 management plan satisfactorily addressed the concerns about protection of the northern spotted owl that had prompted the original injunction. Despite the continued threat of lawsuits, U.S. Forest Service officials stated that, as a result of the lifting of the injunctions against logging, they would proceed with plans to sell timber in the disputed areas.

In another ruling with significant implications for the northern spotted owl and other endangered species, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded in April, 1994, that the Endangered Species Act does not define destruction of a species’ habitat as a prohibited activity. The ruling was made in a lawsuit brought by a Sweet Home, Oregon, logging group, which claimed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had incorrectly decided that the logging of forests containing endangered species or other habitat modifications constitute harmful activities as defined by the act. Portland Timber Summit (1993)
Timber industry
Forest management
Old-growth forests[Old growth forests]

Further Reading

  • Clinton, Bill, and Al Gore. Putting People First: How We Can All Change America. New York: Times Books, 1992. Collection of speeches by Clinton and Gore includes presentations of their views on citizen participation in public discourse.
  • Dietrich, William. The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Provides an illuminating look at the old-growth controversy. Focuses on the logging town of Forks, Washington, in examining how such communities have been affected by the debate.
  • Ervin, Keith. Fragile Majesty: The Battle for North America’s Last Great Forest. Seattle: Mountaineers, 1989. Presents a history of Washington State forest management controversies. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team. Forest Ecosystem Management: An Ecological, Economic, and Social Assessment. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993. Presents descriptions of the forest management options developed following the Portland Timber Summit. Includes detailed reference to supporting materials and a content summary of presentations at the conference.
  • Gore, Al. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. 1992. Reprint. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 2006. Highly readable book by an environmental crusader who became vice president of the United States in 1993. Details human effects on the physical environment, including the effects of deforestation. Includes excellent bibliography.
  • Stout, Benjamin B. The Northern Spotted Owl: An Oregon View, 1975-2002. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2006. Examines the controversy surrounding the protection of the northern spotted owl and the negative impacts of that protection on local timber-dependent communities.

Paclitaxel Is Extracted from Pacific Yew Trees

Launch of the First Earth Resources Technology Satellite

U.S. Congress Revises Resource Management

U.S. Congress Limits Forest Clear-Cutting

Arnold and Gottlieb Publish The Wise Use Agenda

Spotted Owl Prompts Old-Growth Timber Controversy